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A Creature of Moonlight
Rebecca Hahn
Saffron And Brimstone: Strange Stories
Elizabeth Hand
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
Lois McMaster Bujold
Snow in May: Stories
Kseniya Melnik

The Oversight

The Oversight - Charlie Fletcher Like 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell'? How about Daniel O'Malley's 'The Rook'? Then you should get this book.
The old-timey London setting, with secret magical elements, is reminiscent of the former book, but the tone is much less fussy. The supranatural agency and amnesiac heroine reminded me of the latter.

'The Oversight' is the organization of half-fey agents who are sworn to uphold 'The Law and the Lore,' protecting both magical and mundane elements, mainly by keeping them from each other... However, after a past Disaster, the Oversight is radically reduced, and in quite dire straits. They are desperate for new magical members, and in danger of being overwhelmed in their task by maleficent magical forces.

When a girl who seems to have some ability is delivered into their hands, Sara Falk is eager to accept her into the fold... but there could be a trap awaiting her and her friends.

Nice, rich, complex world-building and a good twisty plot make this long book very enjoyable. It's very clearly the start to a series... not all the questions are answered, or issues resolved... but it's done well enough that rather than aggravating me, I'm eagerly anticipating the next volume. I hope Mr. Fletcher is a quick writer!

The End is Nigh

The End is Nigh - John Joseph Adams,  Hugh Howey,  Ben H. Winters,  Annie Bellet,  Will McIntosh,  Megan Arkenberg,  Scott Sigler,  Jack McDevitt,  Nancy Kress,  Seanan McGuire,  Jonathan Maberry,  David Wellington,  Robin Wasserman,  Matthew Mather,  Paolo Bacigalupi,  Sarah Langan,  Des If you liked John Joseph Adams' 'Wastelands' anthology; then this one is a must. The stories range from good to excellent.
This is a bit of an experiment in whether an independently released, e-book-only anthology can succeed; if it's got the right names behind it. I rather hope it does succeed, because this is a fully professional, high-quality collection. (I do wonder what will happen with these, as far as award nominations, though...)

**** The Balm and the Wound—Robin Wasserman
A cult leader is adept at providing platitudes and fleecing his flock. But after his young son is dropped off at his place; the leader, along with the rest of the doomsday cult, finds himself swept along in a survivalist current, with the boy at the helm. Very nicely done. I really enjoyed the ironic tone.

**** Heaven is a Place on Planet X—Desirina Boskovich
Aliens have arrived; and informed the planet that at the end of the month; everyone will be zapped into oblivion/transported to a distant paradise planet. Everyone, that is, who continues about their business as usual. Enforcers are nominated to shoot anyone who acknowledges that the end is at hand. Eliminating their fellow citizens is hard; but paradise is at stake... or so they believe.

**** Break! Break! Break! —Charlie Jane Anders
Starts off feeling like a high-school-memoir, telling the story of a nerdy stuntman's kid and an aspiring filmmaker to team up to create a viral Internet sensation. And then it becomes a cautionary tale about how art can be co-opted for political gain... and it gets a lot better.

*** The Gods Will Not Be Chained—Ken Liu
Not bad, but I feel like I expect better from Ken Liu. As far as themes, it starts out with cyberbullying, and has some interesting insights into the uniqueness of communicating with emoji - and gets into the nature of human intelligence vs. AI - rolled into a story that I found a bit more sappy than genuinely moving.

*** Wedding Day—Jake Kerr
A super-contemporary feel to this one. A long-term lesbian couple want to get married, but their long-deferred plans go awry when it's announced that an asteroid impact will soon devastate America - and only some of our citizens, determined by lottery, will be able to travel to safety in time. Again, a bit sappy, and I really didn't agree with the conclusion, either.

*** Removal Order—Tananarive Due
What this story made me think about is how very peculiar it is that our society values keeping people alive when they have no hope of recovery from illness, and they are in horrible pain. This story has that situation: a young woman has stayed in an evacuation zone to care for her dying grandmother. The situation is believable, and is dealt with in a sensible manner, but I don't think I had the empathy with the main character that the author intended.

*** System Reset—Tobias S. Buckell
A hacker and his buddy try to stage a citizen's arrest of another hacker - one with terrorist tendencies. But they screw things up, an the situation ends up worse than they imagined.

**** This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces—Jamie Ford
Halley's Comet is scheduled to sweep by Earth in 1910, and doomsday fever has swept society. Darwin Chinn Qi is a young Chinese man working a menial job at a fancy comet-themed party. Few of the sophisticated partiers seem to really believe the end of the world is at hand... But telling more would be spoiling. Really liked it.

**** BRING HER TO ME—Ben H. Winters
Twenty-odd years ago, pretty much everyone on earth started hearing the voice of God inside their heads, telling them what to do. And what God wants everyone to do now is to commit suicide by poison. However, one girl has been 'deaf' to this voice since birth. One of her parents wants to 'hide' this defect and give her the poison. The other wants to turn her in to the authority... A much more horror-genre feel to this than most of these stories. The ending is a bit ambiguous - but that's OK, 'cause it was good and spooky.

*** In the Air—Hugh Howey
A government agent was privy to the knowledge that the government planned on blowing up the vast majority of humans via nanomites in the bloodstream. But he remained silent, and said nothing - and opted to try to save his family. Nice exploration of ethical issues, but the story itself could've had a bit more...

*** Goodnight Moon—Annie Bellet
No relation to the Margaret Wise Brown classic kids' story!
A team of seven researchers on an international moon base discover a huge asteroid heading straight for them. Their emergency shuttle can only hold three, at a pinch. The team must decide who has a chance at life; who will die, and face their fate. It's an emotionally wrought situation, but stops just short of sentimentality. Still, I wished there was some sort of new twist to this familiar scenario.

*** Dancing with Death in the Land of Nod—Will McIntosh
A pandemic brings an unlikely couple together. Forty-something Johnny helps his aging dad with his failing drive-in theater. Twenty-something Kelly, who never completed nursing school, bonds with him over their mutual inability to get out of their stifling small town. Together, they try to care for the townspeople who've been struck by a new, incurable illness.

*** Houses Without Air—Megan Arkenberg
Roommates Beth and Fatima deal with the approaching end of the world through their vocations. Volcanic explosions mean that everyone will soon be suffocating. Beth has been working on an immersive virtual reality experience. Fatima is a well-known artist who creates memorials. OK, but I wanted a little more from it...

*** The Fifth Day of Deer Camp—Scott Sigler
Five buddies on a camping trip are snowed in to their hunting cabin - when a UFO lands right near them. The news lets them know that it's a large-scale alien invasion. They prepare to try to defend themselves.

*** Enjoy the Moment—Jack McDevitt
Physicist Maryam Gibson is desperate to get her name on a major discovery and cement her scientific reputation. But does anyone really want their name applied to the phenomenon that will be responsible for the end of life on earth?

**** Pretty Soon the Four Horsemen are Going to Come Riding Through—Nancy Kress
Sophie and Cassie's mom might not be educated herself, but she's gone out of her way to make sure that her two girls go to a good school. It's not surprising that her kids get picked on for their old clothes and obvious lack of wealth. The teachers may think that aggressive, older Sophie is the problem, with her tendency toward fighting. However, mom knows that younger, sweet but passive Cassie might be the real problem - and that it could be a bigger issue than anyone's guessed. The story's a very effective illustration of how revelations don't have to come from the halls of academia, but can come from native intelligence and common sense. Not that that will save the world...

***** Spores—Seanan McGuire
Lab worker Megan is known for being paranoid. Her OCD means that she's always cleaning, and her co-workers and loved ones are on the lookout for her 'episodes.' However, just cause you're paranoid doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. Megan works in a bioengineering lab... and not all of her colleagues share her focus on safety and caution. Excellent, truly horrific story. (I've really got to get around to reading Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant's other work...)

*** She’s Got a Ticket to Ride—Jonathan Maberry
A hired 'deprogrammer' specializes in getting young people out of cults. But one particular assignment: extracting an heiress from a doomsday cult, might cause him to see things a bit differently.

**** Agent Unknown—David Wellington
Straight up zombie medical-thriller. Really very good - it's a prequel to an upcoming novel, and I just might go out of my way to read it when it comes out.

*** Enlightenment—Matthew Mather
Hey! There's no end-of-the-world here! This is a horror story about a sort of religious group that likes to throw very special dinner parties. It's quite disturbingly horrific, but it also sounds quite a lot like the premise of Graham Masterson's 'Feast' (aka 'Ritual.')

**** Shooting the Apocalypse—Paolo Bacigalupi
One of Bacigalupi's favorite topics - water shortage. A border conflict, a corpse hung up a a fence, left to animals and the elements. A drug war casulaty, or superstitious sacrifice? Two journalists are in search of the story, in hope of a scoop. As always with bacigalupi, this is really, really well done. The different, contrasting motivations here are played against each other really well - from petty personal arguments to decisions that will have far-reaching consequences - and the agonists are, always, all too human. However, I had mixed feelings about the depiction of journalism as utterly predatory and ultimately selfish. It's an argument I've seen a lot of lately, and I'm on the other side of it.

**** Love Perverts—Sarah Langan
An asteroid is heading for Earth. The chosen few have been issued tickets to get into underground bunkers, where they hope to live and survive for generations. Teenage Tom Crawford's wealthy family had tickets - but they left him behind. He thinks maybe it's because he's gay. His best friend, Jules, never had a chance. A nicely crafted tale of different kinds of love - and how some love is real and true, even when the kinds of love we expect to receive turn out to be false.

The Kraken King Part I: The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster (Iron Seas, #4.1)

The Kraken King Part I: The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster (Iron Seas, #4.1) - Meljean Brook Steampunk romance, hmmmmm?

Well, it was free, it was a 'teaser' and I thought I'd give it a try, since the author has some good reviews.

Overall: I liked it! It's not just romance; there's some good action going on here.

Geraldine and Helene are traveling via airship to reunite with Helene's husband. Geraldine is incognito - she doesn't want anyone to know she's the popular adventure author Zenobia Fox - OR who her secret-agent brother is. After all, she's been kidnapped multiple times before. (I assume there are prequels to this story).

However, the airship comes under attack and they have to bail out. Luckily, they're rescued by a super-hot Asian warlord, Ariq.

Ariq and Zenobia's meeting-scene was actually pretty hot. Good job.

However, the way the romance began to progress was a bit too typical/conventional. The bad-ass, outside-the-law guy cared a bit too much whether Zenobia was married or not. And the whole 'misunderstandings caused by lack of communication' thing felt... done before.

This is not a complete story, so there's no resolution (or any sex scenes), but since this was a teaser, I wasn't really expecting either.

I'd read more by the author...

The Blackwell Pages 01. Loki's Wolves

The Blackwell Pages 01. Loki's Wolves - K. L. Armstrong;M. A. Marr A middle-grades book. The author is Kelley Armstrong - is the 'initial' thing an attempt to sell this book to boys? Aren't we past that yet?

This story does to Norse mythology what Percy Jackson and the Olympians did to Greek mythology. The book is very, very similar in tone and feel to Rick Riordan's writing. If you're a fan; go for it, you will love this. I didn't - but that's mainly my personal preference.

A group of American children who are the descendants of the Norse gods are drawn together in a quest to save the world - Ragnarok is approaching. They must form alliances, learn who to trust, and discover their godly powers.

As this is a series; we don't get around to Ragnarok in this volume - it ends quite abruptly.

Shanghai Sparrow

Shanghai Sparrow - Gaie Sebold Exceeds expectations!

This book is just pure fun. Eveline Duchen has been orphaned and left to fend for herself on London’s gritty streets. She’s made a life for herself, of sorts – but that’s abruptly turned on its head when a grasping government agent plucks her out of her situation and places her in a school for female spies. Of course, he’s got an agenda. He believes that her uncle was a researcher into the use of Etheric sciences, and that Evvie might’ve inherited an ability that can be harnessed for the use of the British Empire. Little does he know that the real researcher was Evvie’s mother, and that Eveline has no mechanical or magical ability to speak of.

However, she’s got plenty of smarts – and with the help of her new friend Beth; she might even be able to figure out who – if anyone – she can trust.
The tale mixes magic and faerie lore with steampunk elements in a way that I found reminiscent of M.K. Hobson. This book is a must for her fans, as well as fans of Gail Carriger, Leanna Hieber and even Kage Baker’s ‘Nell Gwynne’ stories. It’s got fast-paced action, some good twists and turns, and although it’s got a super-attractive, enigmatic Chinese tutor, it avoids tired romance tropes. Like I said, it’s a fun, quick read – with a bit of the feminism and anti-colonialist sentiment that’s de rigueur for any entry into the steampunk genre.

My one quibble: from the title, I expected a Chinese setting. We don’t get to China until 87% of the way through the book, and it’s only a very brief visit (speedy airship travel is convenient). There aren’t even any well-developed regular Chinese characters in the book. Maybe this aspect will be further expanded on in some sequels (it’s a nice opening), but as it stands, in no way was the Chinese trip necessary to the plot, and the brief scene in Shanghai felt quickly sketched out.

However, the London setting felt vivid, the characters’ ‘voices’ were convincing, and even the villains were reasonably well-drawn, with believable motivations (always a good thing). I’d definitely like to seek out Sebold’s two previous books.

Copy provided by NetGalley & Solaris books; in return for an honest review.

They Shall Begin Again: A Novel

They Shall Begin Again: A Novel - Giacomo Papi Not bad. From the brief description I'd read I was expecting a zombie novel, but the scenario pictured here is more like the resurrection at the Day of Judgement - except that there is no judgement.

An old man is found naked and creating a disturbance in a grocery store. The protagonist, a doctor who happens to be at the scene, gets him taken in to the hospital. After some investigation the authorities are flabbergasted to find that the man's story seems to be true: he is who he says he is - and he died thirty years ago.

But the elderly man is just the beginning. The dead are rising up, just as they were when they died, but in fresh, vigorous new bodies. Not just the recently-deceased but ancient ancestors are turning up, and they're arriving in exponentially-increasing waves. The situation soon cannot be kept under wraps, and an emergency conference is called to try to find a solution to the problem: the Earth cannot sustain all the people who ever lived, simultaneously.

The doctor leaves his pregnant girlfriend to attend the conference, against her protests. And while they're separated, civilization may come to a point of collapse.

The translation here is not top-quality; there are quite a few problems with it. Many of the technical errors I'm submitting to the publisher; so hopefully it'll soon be cleaned up a bit. However, it's immeasurably better than the other translated Italian book I recently tried reading from Open Road. The author's voice definitely comes through, and there are some lovely, absorbing passages here. In tone (though not style), it even occasionally reminded me of Jose Saramago's Blindness/Seeing duology. (Interestingly, this book seems, on the face of it, to have a lot in common with Saramago's novel "Death with Interruptions," which I haven't read.)

However, the book also has some weaknesses. The major plot events seem to occur more for the sake of their symbolism than out of a convincingly argued logical sequence of events. The ending is remarkably inconclusive - again, with an event picked for symbolism rather than actually tying up the plot points. (The whole thing with the dead deciding to organize and slaughter pregnant women was what really didn't convince me; it just seemed to be about the concept of the dead versus the living, rather than working from an idea of how a whole bunch of unconnected displaced persons would really behave. And ending the book with a birth and the whole "the end is a beginning" bit was nice and all - but the actual plot wasn't wrapped up.)

The book overall fits in nicely with other recent entries into the post-apocalyptic genre - I belong to a post-apocalyptic book club, and will be recommending it to them.

Reign of Ash (The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga)

Reign of Ash - Gail Z. Martin The second in the series, directly following the cliffhanger ending of 'Ice Forged.' I'd recommend beginning with the first one.

Here, Blaine McFadden, the last living Lord of the Blood, has accepted that he is likely the only man who has a chance to restore the magic than his civilization depends on. Therefore, gathering his friends around him, he embarks on a quest to find the thirteen disks that were held by the original thirteen Lords of the Blood when the magic was harnessed to men's will.
Assisting him are cryptic clues inserted into his companion Connor's mind by the enigmatic mage Vigus Quintrel.
Opposing him is the vicious bastard lord Pollard and his ally, the vampire Reese.
Luckily, McFadden's also got a powerful vampire (and his followers) on his side: Penhallow.

The plot progression felt very much like watching someone play a videogame: collect these tokens, figure out this clue, defeat these monsters. On to the next level... Collect another token, get past this obstacle, have another clue revealed. Time for a battle...

If you're into this kind of thing, your mileage may vary. The first book was firmly within the familiar tropes of the fantasy genre, but this one, I found even more predictable. For me, it got tedious well before I got to the end (and it's quite long - over 650 pages.) I also found myself annoyed that the only female main character in the story, Kestel, who was the coolest part of the first book, here gets relegated to the position of love interest - and thus lost my interest.

I wanted more - the drama between Blaine and his family members at their unexpected reunion is interesting, but not fully explored. I wanted more about the villains' motivations. I wished all the characters were more rounded; not just "I'm a thief! Whenever I see a lock, I'm just itching to pick it!" or "I'm a beautiful gypsy! I will constantly hint darkly about the visions that come to me in dreams!" (etc.)

There's another book in the series coming, but I was glad to find that this installment ends on a much more satisfactory conclusive note than the previous book did.

Advance copy provided by NetGalley in return for an honest review.

The Taint of Midas

The Taint of Midas - Anne Zouroudi Ohhh... I didn't realize, reading the first in this series (Messenger of Athens) that this is a 'Seven Deadly Sins' series. The previous book focused on 'Lust' - this one is 'Greed.'

Greed, as it so often does, comes in the form of a rapacious developer, who will stop at nothing to acquire a prime spot of land, on which he wishes to build retirement villas for wealthy foreigners.

Sadly, the owner of this plot of land, an elderly beekeeper, has recently been killed in a vicious hit-and-run. The body was found by his long-time friend, the enigmatic investigator Hermes Diaktoros, who will implacably pursue justice for his death.

Along the way, he will encounter corruption, selfishness and venality - but also moments of generosity and honesty.

The setting here is on the mainland, rather than a small island, and it feels much more contemporary - definitely present day, with mentions of technology and modern architecture.

Overall, this is not nearly as dark a book as the first one. I'm not sure it's quite as good, objectively, but it's less disturbing. Not everyone is as awful and/or hopeless a person in this book as we saw in the prior installment. The reader remains fairly confident throughout that justice will, eventually, be done. Hermes' justice is quite harsh - but satisfying and appropriate. The reader gets a few more glimpses of Hermes - but who and what he really is remains a mystery.

I'd definitely like to continue with this series.

(Copy provided by NetGalley)

The Messenger of Athens: A Novel

The Messenger of Athens - Anne Zouroudi The author’s bio speaks glowingly of her love for the Greek Islands; so I was rather expecting a light and sun-drenched mystery designed for vacation reading. What I got was better – but much darker. This story is more of an expose of all that’s wrong with island life, rather than an ode to its joys.

A young woman is found dead, her body broken at the foot of a cliff. The local police quickly judge it a suicide and thrust the matter under wraps. But then, the investigator Hermes Diaktoros (yes, like the god) arrives on the scene. It is unclear who he is working for, or what his background is – but his goal is clearly justice, and to that end, he will tease out the dirty and unpleasant secrets that lie in the hearts of the islanders.
I’m not sure exactly when the book is set – I’d guess somewhere between the 1950s and the 1970s. It has an old-fashioned feel to it which I wasn’t entirely sure was due to the time period or the remoteness and social isolation of the setting. There’s a relentlessness to the book – I began to truly feel the sense of being worn down by strict social rules and the moral condemnation of ones’ peers; the sense that an island, however lovely, is a trap, imprisoning one with the promise of a simple life and torturing one with the tedium of the sameness of days. The people here are hidebound in all the worst ways, and hope, for anyone, involves getting off the island, ‘home’ though it may be.

Don’t get me wrong – the sense of place here is wonderful. Very nice writing. The book gives an authentic-feeling glimpse into the world of the ‘locals’ of a tourist destination in the off-season. I’d recommend this to those who are fans of much of the new crop of Scandinavian crime fiction – it’s got a lot in common with many of those books, with its depiction of isolation and the insights into the shadowy side of human venality.

The truly unique aspect to these books, however, is the investigator. Hermes excuses his unusual name by claiming that his father was a classical scholar – but one cannot help but wonder if there’s more to the character than that. He’s intentionally opaque, in a very intriguing way. Is he actually an avatar of Hermes, or the arm of some kind of divine justice? At times he reminded me of an angel of vengeance. I enjoyed his character a lot – and I’ve already started the next book in the series.

Copy provided by NetGalley.

The Present

The Present - Nancy Springer I've been reading Nancy Springer's fantasy since I was a pre-teen - and she's still going strong.
Her work has a kind of pure simplicity to it that suits a certain mood.

The world shown here has than quality: a group of tribes, living in peace and cooperation, proud of the work of their hands.

The story is quite brief, and really, it's not abut the world, or any great deeds: it's about the cycle of life, and dealing with the aging process. A young girl visits her grandmother after time away from her, and has to handle the fact that the elder woman has become forgetful and senile.

Nicely done; especially recommended for younger people, especially pre-teens who may have to handle a similar situation in their lives.

Colosseum: Arena of Blood

Colosseum: Arena of Blood - Simone Sarasso, Ross Alexander Nelhams You know the most frustrating thing about traveling? It's passing by a bookstore and seeing all the books you've never heard of, in a foreign language, and going, "Argh! I wish I could read that! Why don't more novels get translated?!?!?"

This is one of those books that I would've ogled in Italy. It looks so good! Gladiators! By an Italian! Yay! And it's been translated... well, sort of.

As I don't speak Italian, I'm not sure who to blame: the author or the translator. However, I stopped at 50% complete on my e-reader. There are a lot of problems here: odd word choices, poor grammar, awkward phrasing... but the thing that literally gave me a headache was the tense. This book is primarily in present tense, which is often tedious and strained to read in a novel. It's particularly clunky here, with past tense, present perfect, and past perfect occasionally dropped in. Maybe the author did do this, I couldn't say, but it just should not have been done.

The story? A gladiator will end up facing his best friend in the arena (we learn in the first chapter). After that, there's an extended flashback to find out how this young man ended up where he is. It seems influenced by the 'Starz' TV version of Spartacus, but lacks the dramatic tension.

Usually a did-not-finish equals one star, but there wasn't anything actually wrong with the story - I just couldn't slog through any more to find out how things transpired. On to the next book!

Copy provided by NetGalley. I am going to provide them with this feedback, so hopefully they'll give this an extra edit and render my complaints invalid... If anyone notices that they've fixed it, please let me know and I will update. I normally wouldn't complain about typos in an ARC, but this gets released tomorrow, and the issues aren't just typos. As it stands, it requires a *lot* of fixing.

Saffron And Brimstone: Strange Stories

Saffron And Brimstone: Strange Stories - Elizabeth Hand ***** Cleopatra Brimstone.
A budding entomologist suffers a traumatic attack, and goes all Ms. 45 on some probably-undeserving men. Loved it. The supernatural/horror elements are unstinting, but the psychological/metaphorical aspects of the story are as delicate as butterfly wings, and carry the ring of truth.

**** Pavane for a Prince of the Air
Previously read in 'Embrace the Mutation.' I was slightly less enthused on a second read, but I'll stick with 4 stars. "Unlike most of these stories, not horror at all, but a story of grief. A friend of the narrator (author? It feels very, very autobiographical), an old hippie, passes away, and the narrator participates in his widow’s neo-pagan death ritual."

***** The Least Trumps
A tattoo artist lives a solitary life in her mother's old cottage, on a remote Maine island. She battles agoraphobic panic attacks and still suffers from a bad breakup with her girlfriend. But when she buys a mysterious pack of tarot cards, that may have belonged to her favorite childhood author, something seems to change. Loved this story. It's full of perhaps-unnecessary details (like real life) and inexplicable circumstances, redolent with a vivid love of art and literature. It's also awfully, though strangely romantic.

***** Wonderwall
This is one of the very, very few stories I've read which accurately captures the experience of being young, rebellious, genuinely messed up, and simultaneously intelligent and potentially successful. I felt like it was almost... not about me, but about people I might've known. It's also about an art-school dropout and about... not missed opportunities, but perhaps about opportunities that never were.

The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations
*** Kronia
Kronia was a Greek New Years' festival, where role-reversal and wild partying were accepted. Hmm. I'm not sure I get the connection to this piece, which is about different possibilities, the many 'roads not taken' and their outcomes, focusing on a man and a woman who meet (or don't) in childhood, or later, or not at all...

*** Calypso in Berlin
Previously read in 'OBSESSION: Tales of Irresistible Desire.'
An ancient nymph, now living in the modern world, is a human man's mistress. But her attitude toward relationships is still more like what one might find in Greek mythology than what our modern morality calls for...

Echo

The Saffron Gatherers

Ice Forged (The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga)

Ice Forged - Gail Z. Martin This was my first book by Gail Z. Martin. From the cover (I’m not really sure why) I was expecting something a bit more military-SF flavored. Nope. This is straight-up fantasy, and I’d recommend it for anyone in the mood for a big, chunky, entertaining but not-too-demanding tale in the genre.

We’re introduced to a Scottish-tinged land, a feudal realm dependent on magic. Blaine McFadden is heir to a manor, but his father’s atrocities finally drive him to kill the man. This action gets him exiled to the northern penal colony of Velant. Fast-forward a few years (this part felt a bit rushed), and Blaine, now calling himself Mick, has made a life for himself in Velant. Life is hard, and the governor has a grudge against him, but he’s become a self-reliant man, and has gathered friends around him. Then – a magical catastrophe strikes. After quite a lot of chaos, dithering about, messing with enigmatic maps and pendants, and meeting with vampires, among other events, it transpires that Blaine may be the very last heir to the Lords of the Blood who, generations ago, tamed magic for the use of the kingdoms. And that means he may be the only one who has a chance of restoring the power that everyone depends on to keep civilization running.

At some points, the book felt a little bit uneven. I had some issues with the beginning, and it felt odd how there were two POV characters, but one was featured far more prominently than the other. Once the story hit its stride, though, I found it very entertaining, even if the Featured Quest wasn’t the most original concept. It’s also a big ol’ cliffhanger, so it’s a good thing I have the next book in the series on my e-reader and ready to go (thanks to NetGalley!).

I’d say this tale might be enjoyed by fans of Janny Wurts and/or Tad Williams.

Hounded: The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book One

Hounded - Kevin Hearne Well, this was a lot better than I expected! The cover makes this look like a paranormal romance. It’s not. It’s a humorous urban-fantasy adventure. Think: a much more light-hearted, slightly less PC Charles de Lint.

Atticus O’Sullivan is a two-thousand-year-old Druid. He’s developed awesome powers over the centuries, but maintains the appearances of a handsome 22-year-old, and keeps up with his pop culture, in order to blend in. Lately, he’s been living quietly in Arizona, running a New Age book-and-herbal shop (used by the author as an excuse for a couple of outdated and unnecessary complaints about marijuana users, oh well). However, the Tuatha Dé Danann have tracked him down, and soon Atticus (and his faithful dog, Oberon) will find himself facing his ancient enemy, Aengus Óg. A variety of figures from the Celtic pantheon turn up, as well as assorted vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, giants, and what have you. Bear in mind, the whole convoluted scenario is tongue-in-cheek – if you’re looking for high drama, look elsewhere. But I found the book to be fun, light reading.

I’d say the main target audience for the book is geek guys – but there’ll be some general crossover for many Pratchett and Gaiman fans, as well.

I received a copy of this book through Goodreads' First Reads giveaway. Thanks!

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations - Charles Johnson From the book description, I expected more magical realism here. But although this collection wasn't quite what I expected, I'm glad to have been introduced to Johnson as a writer, through these stories. Originally published between 1977 and 1986, many of them have won or been nominated for awards and included in prestigious collections. Rightfully so. I don't think I necessarily agree with all of Johnson's perspectives, but these tales are both entertaining and erudite.


The Education of Mingo
Ooh, this is a disturbing one. A short story, but with some seriously weird and complex dynamics going on. A nineteenth century hillbilly farmer buys a young, strong slave - partly for his labor, and partly because of his isolation. The farmer comes to see the man as an extension of himself. When the slave becomes murderous, his ideas about responsibility and blame are... interesting. There's at least one academic article written about this story [Master-Slave Dialectics in Charles Johnson's "The Education of Mingo" Linda Selzer African American Review Vol. 37, No. 1 (Spring, 2003)], and it mentions a quote that I'm guessing did inspire this piece: Aristotle, Politics: "The slave is part of the master, a living but separated part of his bodily frame."

Exchange Value
This is one all hoarders should read. A couple of young hoodlums break into a neighbor's apartment and find the fortune she's squirreled away all these years. They steal it - but may be cursed to follow her unsavory fate. It's another very disturbing, and very effective tale. It may be a story of an actual curse, or it may be a cautionary tale against miserly behavior. The author seems to think that financially struggling people are prone to the kind of behavior he describes and that it's a social ill - but I'm not so sure. You hear more stories about people unused to managing money blowing their entire lottery winnings, inheritance or insurance payout, than you do stories of people being afraid to spend what they have.

Menagerie, a Child's Fable
Another disturbing one! (I'm sensing a theme here). When the owner of a pet shop fails to return, a monkey and a dog team up to try to maintain order and social welfare. However, what actually happens is pretty much what you'd expect if all the animals in a pet store were left to their own devices. The tale makes it explicit that this is an allegory for humanity's inability to cooperate and get along - made particularly bleak by the reader's knowledge that due to animal nature, the disaster portrayed was fairly inevitable. (And, if the pet shop owner is standing in for 'god,' it's not a very positive view of 'the divine,' either.)

China
A longtime husband and wife have been growing older, getting fat, ill, and decrepit together. Their marriage may have lost its passion, but the wife is content and comfortable with her sedentary life of TV watching and snacking, broken up by visits to church on Sundays. However, when her husband randomly discovers kung fu movies and is inspired to start a martial arts regimen, his wife finds his new interests and friends to be pulling him away from her, to her great dismay. I felt like this story, to some extent, was probably about the author's own discovery of Buddhism. it can be read both as an incisive study of a relationship and as an allegory of an individual's relation to the greater community.

Alethia
An aging philosophy professor finds himself attracted to a failing student - who then tries to blackmail him into giving her a passing grade. Again, that's what the story's about on one level. On the other, it's about self-doubt, the wonderings of an academic who has separated himself from an aspect of culture in favor of another aspect, if he has taken the right path. And about how a fresh idea can rejuvenate one.

Moving Pictures
Hmm. I think this one may be the weakest in the book. I found the narrative voice (addressed directly to the reader) distracting. The narratee is a filmmaker who only pursued filmmaking because it was more lucrative than other options, whose dreams have fizzled, and whose life in general isn't going so well.

Popper's Disease
A doctor out on his way to make a house call is abducted by a UFO. Disconcertingly, the sole alien inhabitant is in quarantine, having been struck by an incurable plague. The alien hopes the doctor can help him. Like most of these stories, it slides into commentary on relationships, race, and some (here a bit heavy-handed) philosophy.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
"There was a time, long ago, when many sorcerers lived in South Carolina, men not long from slavery who remembered the white magic of the Ekpe Cults and Cameroons..." This tale tells the story of a young man who is honored to be chosen as one of these sorcerers' apprentice. He is full of the youthful idealism and confidence of any young person embarking on their chosen career, applies himself to his studies, and works hard. At the high point of his apprenticeship, he truly believes he has magically cured a suffering client (perhaps he has). But it seems that success is never to be recaptured... A sad, thoughtful, and well-crafted piece.

A copy of this book was provided by NetGalley and Open Road Media. Much appreciation.
Feather Bound - Sarah Raughley OK, first off – I don’t think that the marketing blurb advertising this book as “reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez” was a good idea (although it got me to grab the book). It creates unrealistically high expectations – and no, this book simply does not resemble Márquez. Nor does it try to. Stylistically, this reminded me a lot more of YA books such as Scott Westerfeld’s ‘Uglies’ series, or even Malorie Blackman’s ‘Noughts and Crosses.’ And I think the audience for those books would like this one very much.

The story takes its inspiration from the folk tale of the ‘swan maiden’ who can be captured and made a wife, if her feather cloak is stolen. Here, in an alternate modern-day NYC, the ‘swans’ are not shape-shifters. But, somewhere between the ages of eight and eighteen they do sprout feathers on their backs – and if someone steals those feathers the ‘swan’ is magically enslaved to that person’s will. Clearly, the potential for abuse of this vulnerability is huge, and ‘swans’ are commonly forced into sexual relationships, used as slave labor, prostitutes, etc. Unsurprisingly, most of the 3% of the population who may be ‘swans’ keep it well-hidden, although there are some activists who wish to ditch the shame associated with the condition and go public. The parallels with our gay rights movement are made explicit, as well as, of course, the real-world evils of human trafficking.

In this world, we are introduced to a struggling family from East Brooklyn – who just happen to be tied by marriage to one of the wealthiest families in the city, who own a publishing conglomerate. Brooklynite Deanna’s childhood best friend Hyde was the tycoon’s adopted son. Hyde was missing and presumed dead nine years earlier – but now he’s reappeared, and is prepared to take over the business empire. And absence seems to have made the heart grow fonder, where Deanna is concerned. Of course, no romance can blossom without obstacles… and Deanna, against her will, is swept into a vicious intrigue concerning control of the business, and before it’s over, quite a few secrets, dirty and otherwise, will see the light.

It’s not bad at all. Overall, it’s a little more juvenile than I prefer, but this is clearly marketed for a YA audience. (And I do think that some kids may find some of the scenes excitingly ‘adult.’) I could do without Deanna being so very law-abiding. (“I don’t drink because I’m under 21 – and by the way, so are you.” [paraphrase] Really? Ugh. How about, “I don’t drink ‘cause my dad’s an alcoholic and I have no interest?” That works.) However, my biggest gripe with the book was just about my perspective as a New Yorker. I doubt it would bother anyone from elsewhere. OK, Deanna’s supposed to live in East Brooklyn (in a ‘shack’). But Sterling and Underhill, the address that’s supposed to be conveniently close to her house, is hardly in East Brooklyn. That’s Park Slope, and a crazy pricy neighborhood. For a supposedly financially-challenged family, they do an awful lot of routinely calling car services (which they call ‘cab’s, and never differentiate between cabs and car services.) Seriously, no one, let alone a non-wealthy person, would catch the subway *and then a cab* to get to Chrystie St. (Whatever train you caught from Brooklyn, that’s a max of a 5-short-block walk.) And NO ONE who had grown up in Brooklyn would say, at the age of 17, “Let’s try the rides… the Cyclone looks pretty bad ass,” unless there were some kind of convincing and unusual reason that they *hadn’t* been at Coney Island every summer since they were too young to remember. OK, I don’t want to go on nit-picking, but it never feels like the perspective of someone who grew up in Brooklyn. It just seems that the personal experience, and also something about the city’s rich and diverse mix of cultures is missing. I ended up just saying, “Well, this is alternate-world Brooklyn, and it’s different.”

That said, I think this book definitely has the potential to do well, and displays Raughley’s promise as a YA writer.

Review copy provided by NetGalley.